Interactive computer programs engaging fan bases

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Would you rather eat a dog or a snake's heart? Two photos appear in a small box on the computer screen: Click on either one and you'll get a list of which societies eat such unconventional food and what it means in their culture.

It's called a "widget," and this one was launched by the National Geographic Channel to promote its new show "Taboo."

"We wanted to create a widget that would leverage the brand of the show specifically," says National Geographic Channel vp consumer marketing E.J. Conlin, referring to the show's diverse and attention-getting content. "We want to drive tune-in for our show and also get repeat visits. 'Taboo' has depth and breadth of content, and that's what we wanted for our blogging campaign widgets."

What's a widget? Usually written in the Web language HTML, a widget is a mini-application that can update sports scores or horoscopes, offer games and quizzes or play back a funny video. What makes widgets all the rage these days is their viral nature: With a click or two, a user can send a widget to family and friends. Metrics firm comScore reported that in April, about 177 million people viewed at least one widget.

Social networking and blogging have given the widget its status as the hottest item online. Yesterday's youth personalized their dorm rooms with posters and ferns. Today, they're decorating their blogs or MySpace pages with widgets or, as they're often called, "blog bling."

Chief among suppliers of blog bling are Hollywood entertainment companies, which, though not known for being early adopters of new technology, are leading the pack in creating and disseminating widgets.

"The Hollywood studios are actually extremely progressive," says Sarah Hofstetter, vp emerging media and client strategy at 360i, a New York-based interactive agency. "I think consumers are leading the evolution of the widget, but Hollywood is really fast in terms of flexibility and quickly adapting to what they see consumers doing."

Samantha Skey, executive vp strategic marketing at Alloy Media + Marketing, agrees. "Some of the studios are doing a great job in using widgets," she says. "They're ahead of all other categories. They're doing it to propel their assets -- characters or artists -- into the mainstream of social networking space online."

That's exactly what Universal Pictures did to market this summer's "The Bourne Ultimatum." Universal teamed with Google to create a game where the user tries to find the globe-trotting Jason Bourne. Available during the three weeks before the film's Aug. 3 release, the Bourne widget allowed users to keep track of their scores, another personalization that makes widgets contagious.

"Hollywood is definitely embracing widgets," says Universal senior vp
digital marketing Doug Neil, who also launched widgets for "Knocked Up" and 2006's "Smokin' Aces." "For the right property -- the right ones being recognized franchises or brands that people have an interest in -- we'll always look at widgets as part of our toolkit, just as a few years ago we began to create screensavers and wallpaper.

"It's a great way to get our material out there into multiple destinations that weren't there before."

Web advertising via banners continues to be an important part of studio campaigns. "But a lot of people embrace and identify with content by putting it on their personal pages," he says.

A widget also can promote a property across an entire media conglomerate. When Universal began marketing this summer's "Evan Almighty," DotComedy (an NBC broadband channel since folded into NBC.com) created a widget that offered a new Steve Carell clip every workday for six weeks. The clips were culled from NBC Universal TV programs, talk shows and movies, leveraging the power of the massive media company.

The most popular widgets tend to be the simplest; photo sharing, music sharing and chat are huge. According to Linda Boland Abraham, executive vp at comScore, whose new Widget Metrix tracks the usage of widgets across the Web, the rate of adoption can be "quite staggering."

A photo-sharing widget produced by Slide.com was reported by comScore's Widget Metrix to reach 45.8% of all Internet users in Ireland, with a worldwide reach of 117 million Internet users or 13.8% of the total worldwide Internet audience. These huge numbers have fueled Hollywood's interest. In May, Fox Interactive bought PhotoBucket, another popular photo-sharing application, which comScore says has 28 million users.

Widgets are just the latest iteration of an idea that first showed up on the Internet in 1997 with Marimba and PointCast, two companies that gave birth to the idea of "push" marketing.

"With the customization (because of social networking), the idea that people will be coming to you has evolved into a notion that you have to reach out to people and allow them to take a piece of you," says Sean Redlitz, DotComedy's former managing director. "The idea that you can just set up a shop in a mall and wait for people to come by has been changing as people's behavior on the Web has been changing. The way content and information travel on the Web has been democratized, and people who are smart are jumping on that."

According to Chris Cunningham, vp global sales at Freewebs, a personal publishing platform, his company's widget for Paramount's 2006 drama "Freedom Writers" was one of the first utilized by a major studio. Since then, Freewebs has created widgets for Sony Pictures' "The Ghost Rider," New Line's "The Number 23" and Universal's "Georgia Rule" and "Knocked Up."

"The entertainment brand has migrated to this space quicker than any other category," Cunningham says. "They have the most flexibility when it comes to budget and some of the most creative people."

Hollywood's creativity with content and marketing has translated to innovative widgetry. Freewebs' "Georgia Rule" widget, which debuted on Mother's Day, enabled users to post stories to a virtual wall and send a one-click "good wishes" message to mom. "Widgets will only be successful if they have cool, exclusive content that is of some utility to the user or a personalized experience," Cunningham says. "For the studios, it's the freshest form of an extension of a brand ... and the sexiest. It gives users the ability to take your brand, your movie, and publish it on the Web."

Discovery Channel/the Science Channel vp new media Randy Rieland says he is developing a daily "cuddle" widget for Animal Planet. Alloy Media + Marketing's Skey points to the portable avatars created for "Hairspray" as a successful application. "Hollywood is adapting to the fact that you can't do a whole trailer in a widget," she says. "It's more about enabling someone to brand themselves, to grab a little piece of the project and put that into one's own profile."

Widgets, however, do present challenges. For entertainment companies struggling to create new business models, widgets are free content requiring an adjustment for studios accustomed to a revenue stream from ringtones, wallpaper and other brand-related paraphernalia. And the actual effectiveness of widgets is difficult to measure because metrics for them also are new.

If and how widgets can be monetized is a question not even close to being answered. Discovery Channel created a widget for its popular "Shark Week" that was sponsored by national chain restaurant Joe's Crab Shack. But this kind of direct return isn't easy to find in this crop of Widgets 1.0.

"(Joe's Crab Shack) thought it was an innovative thing and a good way to be part of 'Shark Week,'" Rieland says. "But I think widgets need more of a track record before people can talk seriously about them as a revenue stream."

Some observers believe Hollywood should walk a narrow line between putting enough content online via widgets to engage audiences -- but not so much that it gives away the store.

Some players are experimenting with pre-roll and post-roll advertising. But many widget-lovers recoil from overt ads. Observers believe finding the correct balance between attractive content and a palatable level of promotion will be key.

"Right now (widgets) are only a hobby, but it'll be a buzz that will be able to be monetized," says Brian Seth Hurst, CEO of the Opportunity Management Co., who predicts that one day there will be a subscription model for widgets. "We're trying to figure out an unobtrusive way for advertisers to sponsor the widget of an entertainment company we're working for."

Will widgets replace other marketing outlets for the studios?

"If you're paying $100,000 for development of viral widgets that reach 5 million other people, that's a cheaper way to reach your audience than other media," Skey says. "It's too early to see if it's going to eat other things, but we're seeing a lot of interest in incorporating widgets into advertising plans for all types of entertainment marketers. ... As standards for measuring efficacy emerge, we'll see if they begin to get a greater market share of those ad dollars."

Honing those standards for measuring widgets is a top priority for companies that create, syndicate and track widgets. Clearspring, which has partnered with CBS, NBC Uni and Turner Broadcasting among other entertainment entities, tracks widgets by placing them in a virtual wrapper. This gives them real-time feedback as to how people are interacting with them.

"Combined with a publishing platform, our clients can then reconfigure what the wrapper refers back to as they see the metrics and the people interacting with it," Clearspring CEO Chris Marentis says. "They can influence programming decisions within the widget in real time."

Freewebs president Shervin Pishevar recently put together WidgetCon 2007 in New York, which brought together 170 executives for a conversation about marketing through distributed content. The group also has established the Widget Marketing Assn. to promote its interests.

"We wanted to legitimize the business," Freewebs' Cunningham says. "We need a general conversation about tracking and the economics behind it. We don't want to set up standards and force widgets to behave in a certain way. If you look at what Google did with search -- they just created it, they didn't define how it would work."

In the meantime, entertainment companies are gleaning what they can from the current metrics available. Rieland says that close to 10% of those who viewed the 'Shark Week' widget clicked back to the network's Web site. 360i is conducting widget metrics studies for National Geographic's "Taboo" campaign.

But the complexities of the widget relationship -- clients, creators, syndicators, publishers -- makes it even more difficult to gather meaningful data.

"The widget might be designed by one company, distributed by another and hit the server of a big advertiser," comScore's Boland Abraham says. "All three of those companies are interested in a measurement, and we need specific information to tell what advertisers, publisher and platform company distributed it. Right now, those standards don't exist."

Another potential danger is the crowding of the widget landscape. They are free, easy to create and just as easy to distribute. "I think soon everyone will have one, just like everyone has a Web site," Hurst says. "The democratization of widget-making means the creation of widgets is in the hands of the many, not the few."

The widget landscape already is crowded, 360i's Hofstetter says, but she has a different take on Hollywood's position in the widgetocracy: "As with all content, what bubbles to the top are the widgets that are most interesting and engaging. The percentage of 'stupid human tricks' that rise to the top is tiny. Most videos being consumed online today are professionally created."

A certain level of widget-weariness is already making itself felt among marketers who feel like they've seen it all before. "I see widgets come, I see widgets go," New Line executive vp new-media marketing Gordon Paddison says. "You tell me that my marketing can be more successful with widgets? Great. At what price point? I'm not saying that the cost of widgets isn't worth it. I'm saying the world has gone a little widget crazy. My conclusions is ... show me the value."

Paddison predicts a future in which widgets take an important -- and less hyped -- place in the constellation of digital marketing tools. In the meantime, however, they continue to occupy the spotlight.

"The usage of these tools for the purpose of marketing, communicating and propelling a message is in its infancy," Skey says. "Consumers are interested in what widgets can do for them. Capitalizing on that consumer interest is the fun challenge for Hollywood right now."   
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